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Lisbon Is Pretty Close to Us

A Boston production of Terrence McNally's The Lisbon Traviata reminds Filichia of the kindship between opera queens and musical theater aficionados. logo

Terrence McNally
Saw a terrific production of The Lisbon Traviata at Lyric Stage in Boston, which reminded me once again that it's one of Terrence McNally's best works. That's really saying something, given that the guy has also given us Master Class, Lips Together, Teeth Apart, Ragtime, and Love! Valour! Compassion!

The play starts out, you'll recall, as the story of Mendy, the (you should pardon the expression) opera queen who's told by his buddy Stephen that there is a recording of Maria Callas's glorious La Traviata in Lisbon, making Mendy absolutely rabid to hear it. Okay, Neil A. Casey didn't erase memories of Nathan Lane's Mendy, but Peter A. Carey sure made me forget that Anthony Heald ever played Stephen. Carey was brilliant in the first act, acting bored and distracted in contrast to Mendy's white-hot mania; but he was even more impressive in the second act when he became his own version of Mendy, consumed by a passion he might never have believed he had in him.

Of course, whenever I see The Lisbon Traviata, I do feel a tug of regret that McNally chose to write about those fans who exist for opera rather than those aficionados who live for musical theater. Given what happens in the play's final scene (Lyric Stage did the original, controversial version), I'll grant you that the theme does lend itself more to opera. But, oh, so many of McNally's lines can also apply to musical theater. I had to smile at the mention of Music Masters, the record store that used to be east of Broadway in the West 40s. Yes, they sold many opera bootlegs, but they didn't neglect musicals. My first recordings of Louisiana Purchase and Mexican Hayride, long before the former got a snazzy studio cast album and the latter's original cast album was reissued, came from there. I was thrilled to get them.

Mendy's line "Did you get the Masked Ball on Phillips?" reminded me of how many of us not only know recordings but also know the labels they're on. (Quick: Cabaret, Camelot, Chicago--what labels? I knew you'd know.) Stephen's retort to Mendy that "You'd buy anything" sure hit a chord. Want to see the London cast album of Share My Lettuce? The Boston cast album of something called Mad About Mintz? The Hebrew cast album of Irma la Douce? Come up to my place.

"I heard her Manon in 1971," bragged Mendy in reference to a certain diva, reminding me of how many, many times I've bragged to people about what I've seen. For example, my 1971 included Prettybelle, Ari, No, No, Nanette, Lolita, My Love, On the Town, The Grass Harp, and--oh, yeah--Follies. (I'll stop now.) On the other hand, one of my arch enemies often taunts me with his having seen the original productions of Me and Juliet, Candide, and Greenwillow. It does work both ways.

I was also amused by Mendy's calling the record store, knowing the names of clerks and even where certain records are stored in the shop. ("Did you check the shelf under the Angel cut-outs? Sometimes Franz puts them there.") It all brought back memories of April 1964, when, as a 17-year-old fanatic, I'd call Art Klein at Lechmere Sales in Cambridge, Massachusetts at least three times a day to ask if Funny Girl had yet come in. On the magic day of days when it finally did, I drove at illegal speeds to get it, even faster ones on my way home, then played it twice--before calling Klein again to ask when High Spirits would be in.

I chuckled when Mendy and Stephen tried to find a recording they both wanted to hear. Easier said than done. "Nine thousand records, and we can't find one?" Stephen asked with astonishment in his voice. Indeed! I still remember that dinner at Richard Norton's house when the entire entrée burned as we deliberated what would play while we ate. (We finally settled on the original London cast of How to Succeed and takeout Chinese from a local eatery to provide a replacement meal.) When Mendy does finally land on one selection and plays it, it's not long before he snaps at Stephen: "You're not listening!" There's good reason for that, as we learn in McNally's harrowing second act. But I related to Mendy's complaint, for I have been shattered when I've put a certain selection on for a new friend only to see his eyes wandering, taking a look at my endless rows of records, CDs, books, tapes, and DVDs--looking to see what I have rather than appreciating what I have.

But the statement that got me the most in The Lisbon Traviata was Mendy's "I hate 20th century opera," for it reminded me of so many of my older musical-theater-enthusiast friends who say the same thing about late 20th century musicals. How well I remember a conversation that occurred last year, when one fiftysomething fellow said, "I'm supposed to be crazy for musicals and there's not one show currently running from which I can sing a single song from beginning to end. I don't mean revivals, I mean an original production." To which another fiftysomething said, "Well, I sure can--anything from The Fantasticks!" (Now, I suspect, he's in the other guy's camp.)

So I had to smile when Mendy said, "I loathe the younger generation. They have no respect for old farts like us." Considering how intolerant so many of us old farts are of younger people's beloved musicals and recordings, I don't blame them. When we have respect for their shows and stop dismissing them with a disgusted wave, they might just stop returning the non-compliments.


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]

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